As the Supreme Court has recently heard arguments regarding a federal mandate that would legalize homosexual “marriage,” it’s important for the church to be equipped to defend their position from Scripture. True Christians are not against gay “marriage” because we are mean-spirited, bigoted misanthropes who love to force our opinions on others. We are against gay “marriage” because God Himself is against it, and He has told us so in His Word, the God-breathed Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16–17). Scripture tells us that to embrace homosexuality as spiritually permissible is to commit (or help others to commit) eternal suicide. And no one who truly loves homosexuals would ever be a part of that.
Because God has spoken on this issue, it falls to the church to herald His Word on the matter. Passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 are clear:
- 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 – Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
- 1 Timothy 1:9–11 – realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.
However, those who would argue that homosexuality and Christianity are not mutually exclusive argue that these clear passages have been mistranslated. The word translated “homosexuals” in each of these verses is arsenokoitēs, and, the argument goes, that original Greek word doesn’t refer to “committed same-sex relationships” but “abusive male-male” relationships. Such an argument has been widely popularized by author John Boswell, whose arguments, though refuted by Robert A. J. Gagnon, are constantly marshaled by liberals as evidence of the compatibility between homosexuality and Christianity.
For example, I came across a post from Dr. Gagnon’s Facebook page (courtesy of James White) in which a commenter sought to advance this argument. (The following is lightly adapted for readability and accuracy, as the commenter misspelled numerous Greek words a number of times.)
“There is adequate evidence through exegesis of the Scripture and through transliteration of the words in question that supports the view contrary to your belief. 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:9–10 refer to abusive male-male relationships. As I’m sure you know, the former contains the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoitai and the latter contains only arsenokoitai. They each have, within certain translations, been falsely translated to the word homosexual, as these words are not a reference to homosexuality per se, and certainly not a reference to loving, committed, same-sex unions. Other Greek literature of the same period of time supports the view that arsenokoitai makes reference to a male-male relationship with an imbalance of power, for example a pederastic relationship.
“Generalising arsenokoitai to refer to all gay men and women is entirely incorrect. Its meaning is akin to that of men who abuse their power, economic or otherwise, to have sex with another (usually younger and weaker) male, or to humiliate another male. It may even be seen as an inadvertent reference to sodomites in the true sense of the word, being those who wanted to use male-male rape as an act of abuse, hence the term ‘homosexual offender’ in the NIV. The arsenokoitai often took advantage of younger male prostitutes; malakoi is translated to male prostitutes in the NRSV. The arsenokoites was the active male in the pair and, as I’m sure you know, such cult-temple prostitution was very common in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s time. This is what Paul was referring to.
“On a final note John Boswell suggests in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: ‘Perhaps the most extensive evidence that arsenokoitai did not connote “homosexual” or even “sodomite” in the time of Paul is offered by the amount of writing extant on the subject of homoerotic sexuality in Greek in which this term does not occur. It is extremely difficult to believe that if the word actually meant “homosexual” or “sodomite” no previous or contemporary author would have used it in a way clearly indicated with this connection’ (1980: 345).”
Here’s my question to all Christians who argue based on Scripture that homosexuality is a sin: How would you respond to this kind of argument?
Now, I’m not suggesting that you’re not a faithful Christian if you’re not a Greek scholar. But what I am suggesting is this: This is the level to which these discussions are approaching in our day. With the stakes so high, all Christians who hope to faithfully engage in this discussion and demonstrate Scripture’s and the Gospel’s sufficiency to address this highly controversial topic, need to be equipped to respond to arguments like these in ways that are accurate, informed, and full of grace and truth.
So the rest of today’s post is borrowed from a comment that Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon left on his Facebook wall responding to this argument. In it, he offers 11 responses that demonstrate that the term arsenokoitai (which gets translated “homosexuals” in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) is not limited to exploitative forms of male homosexual practice. In posting this response from Dr. Gagnon, my hope is that the church will be equipped to love their neighbor as themselves—in particular by helping them see the truth of Scripture and not be led astray by fine-sounding yet specious arguments.
Here’s Dr. Gagnon (also lightly edited for readability):
1. Clear connections to the Levitical prohibitions of male-male intercourse.
The word is formed from the Greek words for “lying” (verb keimai) and “male” (arsen) that are connected with the terms used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Levitical prohibitions of men “lying with a male” (Lev 18:22; 20:13). (Note that the word for “lying” in the Levitical prohibitions is the noun koitē, also meaning “bed,” which is formed from the verb keimai. The –tēs suffix of the singular noun arsenokoitēs denotes continuing agency or occupation.)
The intentionality of the connection with the absolute Levitical prohibitions against male-male intercourse is self-evident from the following points:
(a) The rabbis used the corresponding Hebrew abstract expression mishkav zākûr, “lying of/with a male,” drawn from the Hebrew texts of Lev 18:22 and 20:13, to denote male-male intercourse in the broadest sense.
(b) The term or its cognates does not appear in any non-Jewish, non-Christian text prior to the sixth century A.D. This way of talking about male homosexuality is a distinctly Jewish and Christian formulation. It was undoubtedly used as a way of distinguishing their absolute opposition to homosexual practice, rooted in the Torah of Moses, from more accepting views in the Greco-Roman milieu.
(c) The appearance of arsenokoitai in 1 Tim 1:10 makes the link to the Mosaic law explicit, since the list of vices of which arsenokoitai is a part are said to be derived from “the law” (1:9).
All of the above considerations show Dale Martin’s argument to be silly; namely, that the meaning of this particular compound word does not add up to the sum of its parts. While other compound words do not necessarily do so, in this instance it clearly does.
2. The implications of the context in early Judaism.
For example, Josephus explained to Gentile readers that “the law [of Moses] recognizes only sexual intercourse that is according to nature, that which is with a woman. . . . But it abhors the intercourse of males with males” (Against Apion, 2.199). There are no limitations placed on the prohibition as regards age, slave status, idolatrous context, or exchange of money. The only limitation is the sex of the participants.
According to b. Sanh. 54a, the male with whom a man lays in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 may be “an adult or minor,” meaning that the prohibition of male-male unions is not limited to pederasty. Indeed, there is no evidence in ancient Israel, Second Temple Judaism, or rabbinic Judaism that any limitation was placed on the prohibition of male-male intercourse.
3. The choice of word.
Had a more limited meaning been intended—for example, pederasts—the terms paiderastai (“lover of boys”), paidomanai (“men mad for boys”), or paidophthoroi (“corrupters of boys”) could have been chosen.
4. The meaning of arsenokoitai and cognates in extant usage.
The term arsenokoitēs and cognates after Paul (the term appears first in Paul) are applied solely to male-male intercourse but, consistent with the meaning of the partner term malakoi, not limited to pederasts or clients of cult prostitutes (see specifics in The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 317–23).
For example, the 4th century church historian Eusebius quoted from a 2nd–3rd century Christian, Bardesanes (“From the Euphrates River [eastward] . . . a man who . . . is derided as an arsenokoitēs . . . will defend himself to the point of murder”), and then added that “among the Greeks, wise men who have male lovers are not condemned” (Preparation for the Gospel, 6.10.25). Elsewhere Eusebius alluded to the prohibition of man-male intercourse in Leviticus as a prohibition not to arsenokoitein (lie with a male) and characterized it as a “pleasure contrary to nature,” “males mad for males,” and intercourse “of men with men” (Demonstration of the Gospel, 1.6.33, 67; 4.10.6). Translations of arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 in Latin, Syriac, and Coptic also define the term generally as “men lying with males.”
5. Implications of the parallel in Romans 1:24–27.
It is bad exegesis to interpret the meaning of arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9 without consideration of the broad indictment of male-male intercourse expounded in Rom 1:27 (“males with males”). The wording of Rom 1:27 (“males, leaving behind the natural use of the female, were inflamed in their yearning for one another”) points to an inclusive rejection of all male-male relations. Paul here does not distinguish between good non-exploitative forms of male homosexual practice and bad exploitative forms but rather contrasts all male homosexual relations with natural intercourse between a man and a woman. He also emphasizes reciprocity (“yearning for one another”), a fact that rules out an indictment only of a coercive one-sided homosexual desire.
Other factors confirm the inclusive rejection of all male homosexual practice in Rom 1:27: Paul’s intertextual echo in Rom 1:23–27 to Gen 1:26–27 (which contrasts male homosexual practice with God’s intentional design in creation, “male and female [God] created them” and the consequent marital bond), his use of a nature argument (which transcends distinctions based on coercion or promiscuity), and the parallel indictment of lesbianism in Rom 1:26 (a phenomenon in the ancient world not normally manifested with slaves, call girls, or adolescents).
The fact that semi-official same-sex marriages existed in the Greco-Roman world and were condemned by Greco-Roman moralists, rabbis, and Church Fathers as unnatural, despite the mutual commitment of the participants in such marriages, is another nail in the coffin for the contention that the term arsenokoitai had only exploitative or promiscuous male homosexual relations in view.
6. Implications from the context of 1 Corinthians 5–7.
This absolute and inclusive sense is further confirmed by the broader context of 1 Corinthians 5–7:
- the parallel case of incest in chapter, which gives no exceptions for committed, loving unions and echoes both Levitical and Deuteronomic law;
- the vice list in 6:9–11, where sexual offenders are distinguished from idolaters, consent is presumed, and a warning is given to believers not to engage in such behavior any longer;
- the analogy to sex with a prostitute in 6:12–20, where Gen 2:24 is cited as the absolute norm and the Christian identity of the offender is presumed;
- and the issue of marriage in chapter 7, which presumes throughout that sex is confined to male-female marriage.
7. The relevance of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.
If inappropriate hairstyles or head coverings were a source of shame because they compromised the sexual differences of men and women, how much more would a man taking another man to bed be a shameful act, lying with another male “as though lying with a woman”? Paul did not make head coverings an issue vital for inclusion in God’s kingdom, but he did with same-sex intercourse.
8. Implications of 1 Timothy 1:9–10 corresponding to the Decalogue.
At least the last half of the vice list in 1 Tim 1:8–10 (and possibly the whole of it) corresponds to the Decalogue. Why is that important? In early Judaism and Christianity the Ten Commandments often served as summary headings for the full range of laws in the Old Testament. The seventh commandment against adultery, which was aimed at guarding the institution of marriage, served as a summary of all biblical sex laws, including the prohibition of male-male intercourse. The vice of kidnapping, which follows arsenokoitai in 1 Tim 1:10, is typically classified under the eighth commandment against stealing (so Philo, Pseudo-Phocylides, the rabbis, and the Didache; see The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 335–36).
This makes highly improbable the attempt by some to pair arsenokoitai with the following term andrapodistai (kidnappers, men-stealers), as a way of limiting its reference to exploitative acts of male-male intercourse (so Robin Scroggs), rather than with the inclusive sexual term pornoi (the sexually immoral) that precedes it.
9. The implication of the meaning of malakoi.
If the term malakoi is not limited in its usage to boys or to men who are exploited by other men, then arsenokoitai certainly cannot be limited to men who have sex with boys or slaves.
10. Sex with adult males as worse than sex with adolescent boys.
In the Greco-Roman world homosexual intercourse between an adult male and a male youth was regarded as a less exploitative form of same-sex eros than intercourse between two adult males. The key problem with homosexual intercourse—behaving toward the passive male partner as if the latter were female—was exacerbated when the intercourse was aimed at adult males who had outgrown the “softness” of immature adolescence. Consequently, even if arsenokoitai primarily had in mind man-boy love (and from all that we have said above, there is no evidence that it does), then, a fortiori, it would surely also take in man-man love.
11. On commitment and orientation.
Finally, there is little basis for concluding that arsenokoitai does not take in committed homoerotic relationships between homosexually oriented persons. The term’s emphasis on the act—similar to proscriptions of various incestuous unions—makes the term more encompassing of all male-male sexual activity, not less so. A loving disposition on the part of the participants is as irrelevant a consideration for homoerotic behavior as it is for an adult man-mother or brother-sister union.
Moreover, as we shall see below, ancient authors were able to conceive of caring, committed homosexual unions. Knowledge of a “sexual orientation” also is irrelevant, both because (as noted in point 1 above) the ancients could conceive of something akin to a sexual orientation while rejecting the behaviors that arise from them and because Paul conceived of sin itself as an innate impulse, passed on by an ancestor, running through the members of the human body, and never entirely within human control.
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The next time someone claims that arsenokoites refers only to abusive homosexual relationships and not “committed, monogamous ones,” I’ll be sure to point them to this post. Many thanks to Dr. Gagnon for serving Christ’s Church by his labors.
But the question is: will the Church receive the benefits of such labors? Remember, the point of going through all this is not just to demonstrate intellectual superiority or to bury opponents under mountains of monologue. The point is: if the world is willing to go to such lengths to argue for the legitimization of homosexuality, the church must be found faithful in answering these arguments in a manner that is worthy of the Gospel. And the Gospel is worthy of our highest devotion—even the highest devotion of our minds. If we as Christians will not engage the discussion even to these levels, I ask you: who will? Who will stand and offer sound, intelligent, reasoned, truthful answers to the objections advanced against Christ and Scripture?
It must be us. Especially in a time like this. May we gird up the loins of our minds, and truly be always ready to destroy speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.